On my 30th birthday party, I wore a brand new outfit—a beautiful black dress I’d bought just for the occasion—but something felt off. Looking at myself in the mirror, I picked apart everything about my too-large, too-lumpy body. My new dress rode up on my belly and the off-the-shoulder neckline wouldn’t stay put.
“Can I get you a snack?” my partner innocently asked, and I barked something about being so fat I didn’t need any food.
With only 20 minutes to go before my guests arrived, I was feeling shaky, and longing for something I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
I chose to quit dieting because I could see it eroding my sense of self, and I could even feel it tearing my partner and I apart.
I kind of knew what this was all about: I’d been on a diet of some sort since I was a child. Twenty years of restrictive dieting had conditioned me to feeling a constant, gnawing lack of something. Times of high stress (like planning a big birthday party) tended to heighten this feeling.
Earlier in the year, I had started reading the inimitable comedian and activist Lindy West. Her body-positive courage made me question everything I had ever believed about my own body. She wrote in The Guardian, “The ‘perfect body’ is a lie. I believed in it for a long time, and I let it shape my life, and shrink it—my real life, populated by my real body. Don’t let fiction tell you what to do.”
Looking at myself in my beautiful birthday outfit and listening to my partner clanging around the kitchen, working hard to create special dishes for my birthday, I suddenly remembered West’s words. They jolted me out of my stupor and helped me decide on the biggest gift I would ever give myself—the gift no one else could ever give me: I would quit dieting.
I chose to quit dieting because I could see it eroding my sense of self, and I could even feel it tearing my partner and I apart. I told myself it would only be for a year, that I had gotten too invested in dieting, too invested in superficiality, and that a break would do me good. But nearly two years later, I haven’t looked back.
There have been numerous studies and articles about the harmful impacts of dieting and the fact that BMI is more like BS-I, causing doctors to overlook symptoms of real illness in favor of recommending a patient lose weight. Advocates have even developed alternative ways of measuring health, including the Association for Size Diversity’s campaign, Health at Every Size. Put simply, dieting can be bad for you, physically and mentally.
Related: Does BMI Really Matter?
I didn’t find all of this research until well after I’d made the decision to step back from restrictive dieting, and it further encouraged me to take my health seriously. But instead of dieting, I focused on eating healthful foods, getting movement, and generally taking care of my well-being.
The first weeks after I quit dieting were overwhelming. When my partner and I were out to eat, I felt paralyzed by the options on the menu. Before, I had searched out the item with the least fat or carbs, but after I’d quit dieting, I could suddenly eat anything I wanted. What did I even like? I’d spent years saying I didn’t enjoy dessert, but was that even true?
Grocery shopping was an even more daunting task. If I wasn’t sticking to a strict diet, how did I know what to eat? If my partner didn’t have to prepare my dish separately so it used less olive oil, would that mean I could just eat whatever he prepared?
I was faced with a deluge of new considerations and new opportunities. For a while, I was lost in a sea of indecision, but the longer I stayed away from restrictive dieting, the more I found foods I actually enjoyed—many of which are nutritious (and some of which are delicious, chocolatey brownies).
The strangest part of quitting dieting has been learning to understand my body and allowing myself to feel what I feel. In the past, when and what I ate was organized, pre-approved, and scheduled down to the minute. I didn’t allow myself to feel hunger. I learned to ignore those evolutionary signals that meant I needed food.
Now, after almost two years of not dieting, I am trying to learn what it feels like to feel a little hungry or a medium amount of hungry. My therapist and I believe there are signals that I’m growing hungry, but that I’ve spent a lifetime learning not to listen to those signals. So, I have to learn anew, like a baby learning to crawl.
What does that mean practically? I have a fast-paced lifestyle and a couple of jobs. So, I now carry snacks. I try to keep a little something nutritional on me at all times so I can answer my hunger pangs with something satisfying: fresh fruit, trail mix, seaweed, and snack bars boosted with fiber and protein. I even carry brownies when the mood strikes.
The other part of quitting dieting is renegotiating my relationship to exercise. Before, exercise had been a source of punishment. How hard would I need to work out to make up for that Indian buffet I went to? Which weights should I lift to try to make my arms look less flabby?
During one period I became obsessed with a very thin friend’s (unhealthy) workout routine and wanted to replicate it. I did this, until one day I realized that my legs just wouldn’t stop shaking. I sat down on the bench and realized I was lightheaded. I called my partner crying, begging for a ride home.
These days, I don’t use exercise as punishment. I try to enjoy my exercise! Instead of taking on daunting exercise regiments that work for someone else, I try to figure out what makes me happiest. I love walking. I love riding my bike. I love yoga. I even enjoy Zumba.
What I love the most is being outside with my dogs and my partner, exploring new spaces or gardening. Instead of forcing intense exercise into my routine, I’ve tried to change my routine to include more frequent and longer spans of time where I can be active.
I no longer weigh myself, either. After decades of knowing exactly how much I weighed, down to the ounce, I now have genuinely no idea. Some of my old clothes fit. Some don’t—especially those items that I purchased to shame myself into losing weight. I wish I could say it never bothers me, but that wouldn’t be true.
These days, I don’t use exercise as punishment. I try to enjoy my exercise! Instead of taking on daunting exercise regiments that work for someone else, I try to figure out what makes me happiest.
Last week, I wanted to wear a nice shirt, but none fit just right. One was too tight on my arms, another wouldn’t button over my chest. I started down the same self-hating path and was inundated by the harmful thoughts and instincts I’d developed over a lifetime of counting calories and punishing my hunger.
I made myself sit down, let myself feel ashamed and overwhelmed and angry and pitiful, took a few breaths, and reminded myself that I quit dieting for a reason.
Most of the time, I feel ambivalent about my body and I think that’s just fine. Compared to the decades of loathing everything about myself, ambivalence is an improvement. Sometimes I also feel proud. It takes a lot of courage to fight the stigma and harmful narratives around being fat or a person of size (we aren’t all comfortable with the same way of describing ourselves).
I try to push myself every day to look for and tell stories of fat people. I try to fight the hatred I’ve internalized and instead celebrate the strong, beautiful body I do have, even if no one else does.
My focus is no longer on denying my needs, but embracing them—finding ways to create greater health and wellness for myself in the broadest possible definition.
I won’t tell you quitting dieting wasn’t scary—it was. But now I actually understand my body better. I look back on the night I decided to quit dieting, and remember laughing with friends and eating amazing food. I look back on my friends sharing stories about what they love and cherish about me. I look back on a person who, possibly for the first time, wasn’t denying herself. That’s who I want to be, always.